Heaven on earth?

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During a recent long drive, I tuned in, via the miracle of the internet, to ABC radio in Australia, and listened to the "Overnights" show. In this particular hour, the host was playing songs with "heaven" in the title. Gospel songs about the eternal state of the blessed like "When We All Get to Heaven," "In the Sweet By and By," "I'll Fly Away," and "When the Roll Is Called Up Yonder" were not on the playlist.

I don't know how far back one could trace the metaphor comparing the experience of romantic or erotic love as heaven, but it goes back at last as far as Irving Berlin, whose "Cheek to Cheek," as sung by Fred Astaire in Top Hat was the first song of the hour.

Heaven, I'm in heaven,
And my heart beats so that I can hardly speak,
And I seem to find the happiness I seek,
When we're out together dancing cheek to cheek.

The host played Led Zeppelin's "Stairway to Heaven" -- the lyrics sung Beatles-style by an Australian tribute band called the Beatnix, and the tune accompanying the lyrics to the theme to Gilligan's Island by Little Roger and the Goosebumps. The Righteous Brothers' sloppy and sentimental "Rock 'n' Roll Heaven" was played. There was a number from Jesus Christ Superstar, in which Judas complains that Jesus's followers have "Heaven on Their Minds." But most of the music was about the idea that "Heaven Is a Place on Earth," bliss and ecstasy generated by means of a romantic relationship.

Will Heaven carry any weight as a metaphor for the current and coming generations, in which Christianity is increasingly absent from common culture?

The playlist brought to mind a recent blog entry by Rod Dreher, in which he quotes from sociologist Mark Regnerus's new book Cheap Sex: The Transformation of Men, Marriage, and Monogamy. Regnerus cites data showing that the more liberal an American woman is, the likelier that she will say that she wants more sex than she has been having.

Regnerus sets out a hypothesis:

  1. More liberal women are less religious than conservative women. (True.)

  2. More liberal women are therefore more likely to have a difficult time attributing transcendent value to aspects of life such as work, relationships, children, and daily tasks. Some psychologists speak of this attribution as "sanctifying daily life." That is, liberal women are less apt to conceive of mundane, material life as somehow imbued with or reflecting the sacred. For them the world is, to use Max Weber's term, more disenchanted -- predictable and safer, but emptier and less mysterious.

  3. Nevertheless, most people experience sexual expression as, in some significant way, transcendent, or higher-than-other experiences. Giddens concurs: "Sexuality for us still carries an echo of the transcendent."

  4. More liberal women therefore desire more frequent sex because they feel poignantly the lack of sufficient transcendence in life. If sex is one of the few pathways to it, then it is sensible for them to desire more of it.

He then tested his hypothesis against data including religious attendance, importance of religion, and changes in religious inclination over time. He found that the strongest correlation to wanting more sex was not political liberalism, but loss of religious belief.

In a world increasingly bereft of transcendence, sexual expression is emerging as an intrinsic value. Sex is the new opium of the masses, [social psychologists Roy] Baumeister and [Kathleen] Vohs claim, a temporary heart in a heartless world. Unfortunately, something so immanent as sex will not -- and cannot -- function in the manner in which religion can, has, and does. (To be sure, some replace it with an appreciation and devotion to nature.) Sex does not explain the world. It is not a master narrative. It has little to offer by way of convincing theodicy. But in a world increasingly missing transcendence, longing for sexual expression makes sense. It should not surprised us, however, that those who (unconsciously) demand sex function like religion will come up short. Maybe that is why very liberal women are also twice as likely to report being depressed or currently in psychotherapy than very conservative women.

(Opiates are also increasingly serving as the opiate of the masses.)

No wonder we have a culture war. Without hope of heaven, all wrongs must be righted in this life. Without hope of heaven, sexual ecstasy would be one of the few paths to something approximating transcendence, and it would seem cruel beyond measure for religious liberty, social stigma, taboos, or any other force to interfere with a person's pursuit of the ultimate orgasm. Indeed, the Sexual Revolution is rooted in that pursuit, and its founding father, Wilhelm Reich, believed that the orgasm was the primal source of life energy. His crackpot ideas found a hearing among the Beat Generation writers in the 1950s and through their influence into popular culture and mainstream society, where they found a welcome with those who sought a "scientific" justification for their perverted desires and a pretext for tearing down the taboos that society had adopted to protect itself from the destructive power of unconstrained sexuality. Historians Will and Ariel Durant wrote, "Sex is a river of fire that must be banked and cooled by a hundred restraints." In their pursuit of orgasmic transcendence, Reich's devotees have broken the levees and sent the fire flooding into every home.

(If you want to know more about Wilhelm Reich and his cultural influence, Christopher Turner published a biography of Reich in 2011 -- excerpt here, review by Christopher Hitchens here, Independent review here, feature story in the New York Observer -- with obnoxious auto-loading video ads -- here.)

But while American Christians may be better able to find transcendence in daily life, heaven is seldom in our thoughts, beyond vague hopes that we will again see our departed dear ones again.

When I was young, it was a commonplace among evangelical Christians that we should beware of being so heavenly minded that we were no earthly good. There was even a popular Contemporary Christian song in the '80s of the title "Too Heavenly Minded," a reaction perhaps to the heaven-focused hymns common to Southern Gospel music. The song was really an admonition not to neglect the needs of the people around us, but I think the chorus earwormed its way into our brains and convinced us we shouldn't be contemplating heaven at all. The desiccated vision of heaven that had made its way into popular culture -- dressed in robes and wings, floating on clouds and playing harps -- made thoughts of Heaven easier to forgo.


C. S. Lewis had a different opinion: In Mere Christianity he wrote, "If you read history you will find that the Christians who did most for the present world were just those who thought most of the next... It is since Christians have largely ceased to think of the other world that they have become so ineffective in this. Aim at Heaven and you will get earth 'thrown in': aim at earth and you will get neither."

In The Weight of Glory, Lewis wrote, "It would seem that Our Lord finds our desires not too strong, but too weak. We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased."

Richard Baxter, the Puritan pastor of Kidderminster in the mid-17th century, devoted a book to the topic of The Saints' Everlasting Rest, writing that meditating on the joys of Heaven is a "duty by which all other duties are improved, and by which the soul digests truth for its nourishment and comfort."

Christians will find it challenging to resist the ecstasy that the world assures us can be found in sexual sin or reality-bending drugs if we have no hope of true, lasting delights in the life to come. As the Apostle Paul exhorts us, in his letter to the Colossians:

Since, then, you have been raised with Christ, set your hearts on things above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things above, not on earthly things. For you died, and your life is now hidden with Christ in God. When Christ, who is your life, appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

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This page contains a single entry by Michael Bates published on September 23, 2017 8:32 PM.

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